Getting the language of the period and place right…

One of the toughest things about writing is getting the language right. I don’t mean style or the order of words – I mean the actual vocabulary.

You work hard to draw your reader into your world, to have them believe in it, and each time you use an inappropriate word, you fling him or her back into the present. The moment someone is jerked out of their belief in your setting and period, you – the writer – have to struggle to regain their trust.

Some things are obvious. You can’t have a man living in a medieval world say “Ok”. But lots of other choices are more subtle. Can you have him say, “Run that by me one more time?” (Not in my book, you can’t. The phrase just sounds too modern.) Can you have someone in your made-up, pre-industrial fantasy world use the word “teenager”? Or does that sound too modern? Can the healer refer to a heart attack? Or a stroke? Or is he more likely to say apoplexy? Did Roman ladies wear “make-up” or is the word cosmetics better? I have just annoyed a reader by using the word “minutes” in a society that uses only sundials to tell the time. Appropriate or not? Not to that reader – it jerked her out of her sense of place, and that’s enough to have me think I shan’t do it again.

And then there’s those foreign words which we use all the time – but are they appropriate? Can you say “deja vu” in your world? What about “run amok”? “An Oedipus complex”? Or “spartan”?

Sometimes it’s the little things that count.


Getting the language of the period and place right… — 12 Comments

  1. I’m so sorry, Glenda!!

    I should have kept my big mouth shut. I so didn’t mean to upset you or cause you trouble. *hits head against nearest brick wall*

    I wasn’t truly annoyed, and while it did drop me out of the story, the next few lines always drew me right back in. I was more concerned with the fact that I might have missed a mention of a ‘clock’ somewhere along the way.

    I was talking to a friend about this just yesterday, and she told me I was a fool and that I shouldn’t let such things worry me. If the story’s good and the characters are intriguing, then forget it and just enjoy (which I did, very much so).

    Many apologies. I promise to keep my mouth shut in future. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Cheers, Lisa.

  2. Lisa, I, for one, am very grateful you made that comment, because it has really helped me clarify a bunch of things.

  3. Yes, I agree with Gillian, Lisa. If it annoyed you, say so – we can only learn from our readers! I love feedback, all feedback.

    And now I am going across to Gillian’s blog, cos I know I shall learn a whole heap of stuff there too…

  4. Remeber reading a discussion where one writer used the word “donjon” instead of the expected “keep” because she discovered that “keep” was of a later vintage than her period.
    I solved that by using “donjon” when the 12th c. character speaks of his dwelling ni the bailey upon the motte, and “keep” in my time-traveling heroine’s pov.

  5. I think it depends. I’m very much opposed to non-English words/terms in a fantasy novel, because within the context of the book English becomes the default language of the new world and is therefore invisible.

    The minute you introduce French or German or whatever you’re reminding the reader that this *isn’t* the default language of the new world and you break the bubble.

    Ditto blatantly anachronistic terminology. If it’s identifiably from an era not a subject of the story, you pull the reader out.

    I think some language becomes almost invisible, and doesn’t register as ‘wrong’ to a reader. I feel the same way about animals in fantasy, actually. Some translate as almost neutral, I think, and some, for me, really really don’t. Generic animals like horses, cows, goats, sheep — to me they become invisible. But some animals, like armadillos, racoons, kangaroos … to me they are so identified with this world that I can’t believe in a fantasy setting unless it’s an AU.

    Great topic, Glenda.


  6. Mm – I agree with Karen. It’s no good writing a medieval fantasy in Chaucer’s English, is it? We have to pretend the work has been translated. OTOH, I feel uncomfortable when medieval characters use modern slang. Of course they would use slang and colloquialisms in their own tongue, but to introduce “Hi” and “OK” into a conversation about curtain walls, keeps and trebouchets is just too jolting. As with all things, the middle path is probably best.

    My big bugbear is things like weights and measures when I’m writing about an invented world. I absolutely agonise over this one! Is a mile still a mile on a planet long ago and far away?

  7. Lot’s of wise words here in the comments, and on Gillian’s blog too.

    I think I might blog about this again…

    I guess the important thing is always not to jerk the reader out of your world. The problem is when you don’t realise what will invoke the knee jerk! (Like “minutes”…sorry Lisa; it is going to haunt me…lol)

  8. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The knee jerk elements are going to be different for all readers. The minutes caught my eye, but most other people will skim over it. Whereas someone pulled me up for using ‘creek’ not ‘stream’ in one of my novels, said it made it ‘Australian’ and readers weren’t going to like that. I don’t have kangaroos in the novel, but I did want that Australian cant to the novel, so creek it was and will stay. Just to be a tease, in that novel I couldn’t be bothered working out a different time measurement system, so I went with clocks capable of measuring minutes (to be fair there are other such period pieces of technology like steam engines and revolvers).

    I think the ‘minutes thing’ is going to haunt me too…

    Cheers, Lisa.

  9. Yes, that sort of surprised this Ozzie here, too. Creek is not popular in the UK, but it sure is common in parts of the US and I suspect in Canada as well.

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